Emmet Gowin: The Nevada Test Site @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 1996-1997. The prints are sized either roughly 10×10 or 14×14 inches (the larger works are toned), and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

A new, expanded monograph of this body of work was recently published by Princeton University Press (here). Hardcover, 160 pages, with 67 tritone reproductions. Includes essays by Robert Adams. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Back in the spring of 2002, a wide ranging survey of Emmet Gowin’s aerial photography opened at the Yale University Art Gallery. Accompanied by an exquisitely produced catalog, the show, entitled Changing the Earth, gathered together roughly two decades of Gowin’s aerial landscapes taken in locations in the US and across the globe. The exhibit ultimately traveled to more than half a dozen other venues through 2004, and in many ways, rebalanced and extended the narrative that had coalesced around Gowin’s intimate early work depicting his home and family.

One section of that exhibition edit included imagery Gowin made at the Nevada National Security Test Site in a series of five flights in 1996 and 1997. Operated by the US Department of Energy, the site (just northwest of Las Vegas) was the location of over 900 nuclear detonations between 1951 and 1952. It took Gowin nearly a decade to get permission to make photographs of the now-pockmarked deserts and dry mountains, and some 20 images he made at that time were included in the larger 2002 survey.

This gallery exhibit, and the accompanying new catalog, revisits that specific project, diving much deeper into Gowin’s archive, exploring alternate viewpoints and variant prints. Unfortunately, this small show only includes 14 prints, several of which are near (or exact) duplicates of images in the original edit, so the actual breadth of the curatorial rediscovery that has taken place is a bit hard to grasp.

What we can conclude from the previously overlooked photographs is that Gowin was extremely meticulous in his approach. Each image is supported by exact latitude and longitude coordinates, as well as descriptive captions detailing the dates of particular tests pictured, the code names of the operations, and further explanatory information about kiloton yields, the resulting crater dimensions, and other scientific facts. These notes attest to the systematic documentary thinking and mapping behind Gowin’s efforts – he wasn’t just flying around hoping to be inspired by what he saw; he clearly did his research and used that information to inform his picture making.

The other takeaway is that the artistic results from the project are deeper than we might have realized. Gowin took multiple views of almost every major site or landmark, often circling the locations making photographs from different angles, turning the cast shadows around the points on the compass. So while we may recognize the large Sedan Crater, the inscribed lines on whiteness from Frenchman’s Flat, or the Swiss cheese holes of the many clustered bomb craters at Yucca Flat from images we have seen before, there are worthy variants that continue the observations of these places from alternate vantage points.

With nearly 25 years now passed since Gowin made these pictures, that distance allows us to examine the images more dispassionately and consider them in the evolving context of landscape photography. Unlike many who have followed in his elevated/aerial footsteps (Edward Burtynsky, as an example), Gowin consistently crafted images with a careful balance between sublime lyricism and disheartened horror. In one sense, Gowin abstracts these desolate vistas, reducing them to elemental geometries, etched lines, rich contrasts, and tactile surfaces, and then prints the results with a level of exacting precision that burnishes the images (particularly the toned ones) to a soft glow.

But while he finds poetry in these compositions, Gowin never sugar coats the realities or underplays the haunting marks left behind. In describing these permanent modifications to the Earth in words, it’s hard not to resort to bodily parallels – scars, wounds, a sense of disfigurement, even brutalization. Gowin’s pictures never skirt human responsibility for these destructions, they instead make an autopsy of the truths and then leave us with our own questions of repentance – the facts are there to see, so what remains is how we respond to what we have done. The darkness in the shadows and flares of light make the scenes even more otherworldly, but Gowin never lets us forget that we’re not in some dystopian moonscape, but in a bed of our own making.

This is a show that could have benefited from twice as many pictures as it actually has on display, even to the point of grids of variants (thereby adding in a more conceptual twist) or contact sheets. Then we might have felt the fullness of Gowin’s approach. As it is, we get a hint of the broader strength, but not a fuller proof.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $12000 or $15000, based on size. Gowin’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with just a handful of prints coming up for sale in any given year. Recent prices for single images have ranged from roughly $1000 to $10000, with portfolios and multi-print sets reaching $40000.

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Read more about: Emmet Gowin, Pace/MacGill Gallery, Princeton University Press

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